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What is a Vaginal Speculum?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A vaginal speculum is a medical instrument used to dilate the vagina for examination of the vagina and cervix. This medical instrument can also be used in examinations of the anus, although specialized anal specula are also available. Many medical instrument manufacturers produce specula, which are available for sale through medical supply catalogs. Some women's health centers also sell these devices to their patients, for women who are interested in performing vaginal self exams.

Specula in general are a family of medical instruments that are used to visualize the interior of the body by inserting the instrument to get a better view. In the case of a vaginal speculum, the instrument includes a blade that is gently inserted and used to dilate the vagina to make it easier to see. Classically, medical professionals use a two-bladed speculum that resembles the bills of a duck, with a locking handle to manipulate the blades, although single blade vaginal specula are also available.

Clear plastic specula are preferred for examination, because it is easier to visualize the area when using this tool. These specula are disposable, designed to be discarded after use with a patient. Metal specula are also available, and must be cleaned and autoclaved between patients. Specula come in several different sizes, to accommodate women with vaginas of various sizes. Especially small versions can be used for examinations when a woman has an intact hymen.

To use a vaginal speculum, a healthcare professional has a patient scoot down a gynecological exam table after putting her feet in a pair of stirrups. The medical professional usually examines the external genitalia before having the patient take a deep breath. As she breathes out, the medical professional can insert the lubricated speculum in the closed position, and gently open it before locking it in place. The device will stay in place, allowing him or her to take samples and examine the area before unlocking the speculum and gently withdrawing it.

The speculum is held open with hand pressure while it is withdrawn, and closed only when it is completely removed. Closing the device before it is removed can pinch the delicate mucus membranes of the vagina, which can be extremely uncomfortable. It is also important to make sure that the device is fully closed when it is inserted for optimal patient comfort. Women can use the same procedure described above to perform a self exam, with the assistance of a mirror to see once they have placed the speculum.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By VivAnne — On Aug 05, 2011

@blackDagger - It makes sense that the ones most in need of doing self-examines with vaginal specula are women who have had a previous vaginal health issue, such as cancer, and are checking for any new problems.

In my opinion, if a woman has had a health issue that life-threatening and has even the slightest suspicion that she might be developing a problem again, she should just go see her doctor and be professionally examined.

Heck, if it was me I would go in for regular exams whether I thought something was wrong or not -- this is your life we're talking about, it's worth the hassle and bill of a doctor's exam every now and then!

By aishia — On Aug 04, 2011

@Hawthorne - I don't know about how practical they are medically, but certain sexual fetishes definitely make use of vaginal specula (the plural is specula, not speculums), and they prefer the plastic kind for exactly the reasons you mentioned -- better price, easier to clean, and easy to see through all around.

I'm not one of those specula fetish people, but I guess I can understand why some people might like them. They go with that whole popular fetish theme of "playing doctor", which apparently is one of the most common kinds of fetish out there. I try not to laugh thinking of how awkward these people must get when they have to go in for an actual examination by an actual doctor, though!

By Hawthorne — On Aug 03, 2011

@rugbygirl - A plastic speculum seems like a much better idea over all. You don't have to warm it up, it's lighter weight, it's easier to thoroughly disinfect and clean, and it's probably easier to design a plastic speculum that is perfectly smooth so that it slides in more comfortably.

Plastic is cheap, too. I'll bet a plastic speculum costs less to make, and that that's the reason plastic speculums are cheaper to buy if you want one yourself. Plastic is transparent, too -- you can see through all of the sides of the speculum. It sounds ideal to me.

By malmal — On Aug 02, 2011

@mabeT - Eep, that's terrible! Talk about bad bedside manner, and for something that especially requires good bedside manner and gentle hands, too! At least he figured out what was wrong and causing you pain, I hope? If you were in more pain afterward, it seems like having him examine you didn't help at all.

After an experience like that, I would probably have anxiety about visiting a doctor and letting them examine my more delicate areas. Might I suggest you switch to a female doctor? Women are often more sensitive about and attentive to the patient's comfort levels in things like this, because they know exactly what it feels like to be the patient, too.

By rugbygirl — On Aug 02, 2011

Another advantage of the plastic speculum is that they're not as heavy. If you find vaginal exams uncomfortable like I did, a lighter plastic vaginal speculum can really make a difference. When I go in for my annual exams now, it's not nearly as painful as it was with my old doc, who used a metal speculum.

By blackDagger — On Aug 02, 2011

@tlcJPC – I was curious about that as well. And to add to our speculation over speculums, how do the ladies who do self-checks with them at home know what they are looking for once they actually do see in there.

I mean, I have a vagina, as I’m a woman, but I have no idea what the inside of the thing ought to look like!

I’m thinking that maybe women who practice this have somehow gotten adaptable speculums and have also been told by their doctor’s what they are looking for.

Maybe it’s mostly people who have had major issues like cancer or the like and are looking for recurrences.

I really don’t know that any of that is fact – I was just thinking about it and hypothesizing.

By tlcJPC — On Aug 01, 2011

I am just curious. The article mentioned that some ladies like to do a vaginal self-check with speculums that they buy from special women’s centers. Hey, I see nothing wrong with this because good health is important.

However, how in the world do they see anything at all? I mean, it’s not like you can contort your body up into a pretzel to take a look once the speculum has been inserted.

Are these speculums specialized somehow? Or, do the women who do this usually use a mirror or something?

It just seems a little difficult or downright impossible to get a good look down there from a person’s head, which is up here.

By mabeT — On Aug 01, 2011

Normally, a pap smear doesn’t hurt. They normally warm the speculum up a little underneath the examination light before inserting it. Then, they click, click, click and it’s almost over.

Nothing horrible or wild happens at all.

However, when I was pregnant with my first child, I was having some difficulty and pain down in my lower abdomen. So the doctor thought I should be checked.

It was obvious that he was having a pretty bad day when I was called in unexpectedly. I was already hurting pretty badly, but after he checked me, I literally couldn’t stand up straight.

He was very rough and didn’t bother to warm up the speculum, which was frigid. That’s a bit of a shock, you know. He practically jabbed the thing in as hard as he could…it was almost like he was angry with me.

That one experience has made me so much more grateful for the doctors who do not take out their own issues on their patients’ bodies.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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